Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Jeremy M. Downes, The Female Homer: An Exploration of Women's Epic Poetry. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2010. Pp. 350. ISBN 9780874130768. $72.50.

Reviewed by Keeley Cathleen Schell, Wheaton College

Table of Contents

Confronted by the title The Female Homer, classicists might anticipate a treatment of speculative theories about women's contributions to Homeric poetry, in the tradition of Samuel Butler's The Authoress of the Odyssey. Jeremy Downes' study, however, proceeds from a comparative literature perspective and addresses a far wider range of poetry, from ancient Sumer to the twenty-first century. The subtitle, An Exploration of Women's Epic Poetry, more accurately expresses the author's intended project, although the application of the term "epic" to a number of the works under discussion is highly debatable. Downes acknowledges this and wishes the reader to reconsider the meaning of "epic," but in some cases he seems to have confused epic as a genre with the classical tradition, in particular the body of work influenced by classical and Mesopotamian epics.1 On the positive side, Downes invokes a wealth of under-appreciated texts from the medieval through contemporary eras, many of which could be fruitfully incorporated in discussions of the classical tradition.2 Unfortunately, the book is divided into twenty-one chapters that neither present a unified thesis nor stand alone as self-contained studies. Each chapter employs examples from texts from widely divergent eras, cultures and poetic approaches. Because of the large number of themes and of texts under discussion, the resultant accumulation of analysis comes across more as a recursive mish-mash than an intricately woven argument.3

Downes' stated goal is to seek out the "invisible tradition" (18) of women's epic and to determine what its defining qualities are. Downes seeks out this tradition in two ways. On the one hand, he examines long poems with historically attested female authors. He asserts that these poems share thematic "affinities" (22, 33-36) which, while present in some other epics, are particularly characteristic of women's poetry. Most of the book explores a profusion of such themes as represented in post-classical works. Downes also attempts to use these qualities to argue for female authorship of some anonymous works.4 This second undertaking, while controversial, is strictly more relevant to the classicist, insofar as it represents a line of reasoning that can be applied to ancient anonymous texts, like the Homeric corpus. It occupies only a small part of this volume, however.

Downes intends a tripartite structure (outlined on page 19) of theory and generic definition (ch. 1-4); analysis of the structures and themes of women's epic (ch. 5-11); and case studies in the expressions of those themes (ch. 12-21). Initial chapters identify central figures of women's epic, such as Inanna, Helen and Psyche, and central themes, especially the romance plot and the descent to the underworld. It could be argued that these themes are equally characteristic of all epic: Franc,oise Létoublon and Gregson Davis, for instance, consider the katabasis as a defining feature of the genre in their chapters in Graziosi and Greenwood's Homer in the Twentieth Century (BMCR 2008.02.10),5 and the Argonautica incorporated the romance plot into epic. The book also fails to make a sustained argument for the importance of these two themes to women's epic. Instead, Downes introduces a succession of additional themes including cyclical time, religion, textiles, fatherly patronage and global inclusiveness.

Some segments of the argument, less focused on contemporary poetry, are more likely to be of interest to classicists because of their relevance to discussions of the Homeric tradition. Chapter 8 addresses the role of women in traditions of oral epic performance. Downes points out that women have participated in oral epic traditions in, for instance, Finland, Russia and Mali, a fact that has been ignored by many scholars applying comparative anthropological evidence from the modern world to the study of ancient epic. In combination with chapter 10, which outlines Butler's hypothesis of female authorship of the Odyssey and Harold Bloom's postulation of a woman as the author of the "Jahwist" texts of the Old Testament, this serves as a useful reminder of how little we can say for certain about the persons involved in the genesis of oral epic. The assumption that "Homer" represents the work of many male poets, while extremely likely, is not guaranteed. It is useful to keep an open mind to features of the Odyssey, and all other anonymous texts, that express women's perspectives, or experiences common to all persons. As Downes recognizes with regard to nationalism in epic, "the best of our epics never rest so easily on simplistic dichotomies" (264 n. 1).

Acknowledging the possibility of women's participation in the composition of Homeric epic could challenge both conservative and feminist theories. On the one hand, that the Homeric poems were composed by male Greeks has long been one of the only assumptions shared by their fractious scholars, and it is one that it might seem absurd to question.6 On the other hand, Homeric epic has become a totemic text of patriarchy for some feminist scholars (23).7 If women poets actually participated in the production of these works, new questions arise. Did female bards insert powerful women characters into the epic tradition, revealing a vision of society different from that of male bards (148)? Or did women poets interact with the tradition in much the same way as their male counterparts? Downes addresses theoretical questions of this sort piecemeal, examining e.g. ambivalence toward patriarchy in Sumerian epics of Inanna and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh in chapter 12 (161-163), and Christine de Pizan's castigation of women's vices and reinforcement of their subordinate lifestyles in chapter 16 (227-230).

While chapters 8 and 10 consider issues relevant to women in the Homeric oral tradition, chapter 9, which addresses textile narratives in epic and as epic texts themselves, raises questions about genre. Weaving is a traditional medium for women's narrative expression, as in the well-known examples of Helen (Iliad 3.125-128) and Philomela (Ovid, Met. 6.574-578). Downes' assertion that clothing is of more concern in women's epic as a result (as opposed to armor, the corresponding focus in men's epic) is insufficiently proven. Here as elsewhere he selects unpersuasive examples, this one from Monique Wittig's Les Guérrillères (129). It mentions clothing several times, but does not seem more focused on attire than, for instance, the tenth book of the Iliad with its hats and capes of outlandish animal skins.8 Downes' inclusion of the Bayeux Tapestry and the AIDS Memorial Quilt as examples of women's epic is a questionable choice. In selecting the types of text relevant to his study, Downes' definition (28-33) focuses more on themes than formal characteristics, and admits "epic" lyric and "epic" film. However, he rejects "epic novels" and intends to focus on poetry (57).9 Why admit quilts while rejecting novels?

This choice is not the only aspect of Downes' book that may give readers pause. Vergil is the sole representative of ancient written epic cited with any frequency; the Argonautica is mentioned only twice, Lucan once. These omissions call into question Downes' grounding in the fundamental qualities of the epic genre. Likewise, while repeatedly invoking Vita Sackville-West's long agricultural poem The Land, he never mentions Hesiod. In light of the Works and Days, Sackville-West's cyclical approach to time looks less like a characteristic of women's epic10 and more like a necessary component of agricultural poetry. Downes has prefaced many chapters with vignettes from his everyday life, but the analogies to themes under discussion are weak or non-existent.11 It is difficult to find the epic themes in his accounts of child-rearing and chores (perhaps selected because of their status as women's traditional tasks?) and psychological speculation about differences between the sexes.12 From a stylistic perspective, the fact that the book was written over a period of many years (15) occasionally reveals itself. Downes' diction engages in the style of language play that flourished in the late 1990s, occasionally obscuring his meaning.13 The tendency to utilize works repeatedly in different chapters without cross-reference, mentioned in the introduction to this review, is another likely symptom of this writing process.

The book is carefully produced, with only a few minor errata. The index is a thorough and accurate guide to texts and authors mentioned in the text. Downes clearly dedicated a great deal of effort to this book over many years; it is a shame that the text was not more judiciously edited.


1.   For example, his Checklist of Women's Epic Poetry (318-331) includes Louise Gluck's Averno, which is a collection of lyric poetry influenced, in part, by the myth of the Rape of Persephone. "Influenced by the Homeric Hymn to Demeter" is not the same as "epic."
2.   Downes refers the reader to several useful resources. These include the Brown Women Writers' Project and the Hyperepos database maintained by the author. His Checklist of Women's Epic Poetry (318-331) is also a useful starting point for those interested in reading further poetry by women influenced by the epic tradition.
3.   For example, Helen in Egypt by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) is analyzed in chapters 13, 15, and 21, and mentioned as an influence on later women's epics in additional chapters, obscuring the import of the poem.
4.   It should be noted that Downes employs questionable evidence in arguing for female composition of some anonymous works. Assessing the seventeenth-century poem Order and Disorder, recently attributed to Lucy Hutchinson by David Norbrook, Downes cites similes describing women's activities as a common characteristic of women's epic (233-234). Unfortunately, the example he gives from this poem is a translation of the simile of Aeneid 8.408-413 and, as such, hardly an argument for female authorship.
5.   Classicists in general, unless their focus is specifically on poetry authored by women, might be well advised to consult this book rather than the one here under review for an exploration of the margins of epic's influence in modern literature.
6.   Like, for example, the hypothesis that Homer was not Greek but Albanian; see for example I am unaware of any strain of scholarship according serious credence to this theory.
7.   One of the many books on epic by classicists that, although relevant, does not appear in Downes' bibliography is Lillian Doherty's Siren Songs: Gender, Audiences, and Narrators in the Odyssey (Michigan UP, 1995), which argues that readings celebrating the foothold granted Penelope and others as epic subjects contribute to the overall subjection of women that makes these queens isolated cases. In Doherty's view, Odysseus and hence the Homeric tradition divide to conquer, one female listener at a time, and should not be considered true representations of women's voices.
8.   Elizabeth Block (TAPhA 115 (1985) 1-11) has also suggested that clothing is an integral focus of the Odyssey; such a reading would argue against confining this theme to women's epic (unless of course we accept female authorship of the Odyssey).
9.   The title specifies "Epic Poetry" as well. At various points he seems to forget this restriction and includes prose: the Alexiad of Anna Comnena appears repeatedly.
10.   On this see chapter 15. Downes' arguments about cyclical and monumental time as characteristic of women's lives and literatures reference Julia Kristeva's "Le temps des femmes" (1979). I would argue that it is wrong to assert that traditional, patriarchal epic abides by linear or chronological time, however. Besides the fact that the in medias res beginning is a generic marker of epic, canonical epic plots can also be shown to employ repetitive cycles; see for example Lord on the withdrawal of Achilles, which he sees as an iteration of the theme of death and return (The Singer of Tales, rpt. Harvard UP 2000, 190 ff.).
11.   For example, likening the lawn he mows to the diverse peoples of a democracy (254).
12.   This speculation is occasionally patronizing: he suggests that men's traditional tasks are goal-oiented and women's are repetitive and unacknowledged (204-205), but perpetuates the undervaluation by failing to understand that lawn-mowing and car-washing are just as repetitive as laundry and cooking. His belief that girlhood is "about getting along and having a good time" (150) also reveals a serious ignorance of the competitive aspects of modern girlhood. Downes is also , at times, self-contradictory: he claims that "everyone who has had a mother" feels ambivalent about her as "life giver, life taker" (82), but at the same time that girls identify with their mothers and maintain strong ties with them, seeing them as extensions of the self (151 and passim in chapters 11-13).
13.   For example: words that make little sense, chosen because they rhyme, "between the referent and the irreverent" (217); fragmentation of words, "remembering and re-membering" (163), unfortunately not contextualized in the myth of Isis and Osiris until the following page.

1 comment:

  1. I’m delighted to see my work reviewed in BMCR, a journal I’ve admired for many years. Dr. Schell is right to emphasize the book’s exploratory and suggestive aims, and its limited relevance to strict classicists. Faced with c. 300 largely unknown texts in multiple languages, I chose outline, suggestion, and comparison over full argument, hoping other scholars would follow up on my (already lengthy) outline of the field. Though I was able to spend a little time with the Odyssey, Anyte of Tegea, and Faltonia Proba, I had to leave other classical texts—Eudocia and most regrettably Myro—to others. (My writing on men’s epic, including some classical materials, is better explored through my 1997 Recursive Desire.)

    Defining a genre is interesting work, even within a given historical period, so it’s a little troubling to be thrown back in a review to the katabasis and in medias res. Here, however, I only want to correct one mistaken impression. My chief interest is in poetry, as the book’s title suggests. But women’s epic, even more than men’s, plays with the boundaries of genre. This play naturally includes epic novels and other kinds of prose epics, which I discuss several times in chapter 4, mainly in reference to Wolf’s Cassandra, but referring as well to Atwood, Silko, and several others. Writing on the thousands of epic novels by women was too daunting even for me.

    One is always tempted to say just a bit more in response to a review of one’s work, and these could lead to a long post indeed; instead, I want simply to thank Dr. Schell for her helpful criticism and her praise, and most of all for taking her time with my challenging book.


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